- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Picador, 241 pp, £16.99, November 2006, ISBN 0 330 44753 X
Cormac McCarthy has offered us nightmares before. In Outer Dark (1968) he conjured a twisted version of the Nativity in which a child is conceived in incest, abandoned in the woods, sought for months by his mother, and eventually murdered in front of his father by a man who slits his throat. In Child of God (1973) McCarthy imagined a serial murderer and necrophiliac who abducts his unwitting victims mid-coitus from parked cars and drags them into an underground lair, where he lays them out on stone shelves for his nefarious pleasure.
In Blood Meridian (1985) McCarthy followed the barbarous work of a group of bounty hunters roaming the Mexican-American borderlands in the late 1840s, collecting scalps for money and eventually killing any and all who crossed their path. Blood Meridian is the most unsparing treatment of American genocide and moral depravity yet written, an anti-Western that flouts nearly every convention of the genre. In it McCarthy created his most monstrous character, the Judge, a prophet of war everlasting, a serial rapist and murderer of children, a figure of such demonic presence that he can only be compared, as Harold Bloom said, to the great Shakespearean villains. ‘It makes no difference what men think of war,’ the Judge declares. ‘War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be.’ And later: ‘If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay.’
So it seems almost inevitable that at last, with The Road, McCarthy has delivered us to the day after Judgment Day. The Judge’s philosophy has reached its terminus. The world as we know it has been consumed in fire. All is reduced to shades of grey. Man and his tools of war have almost succeeded in extinguishing the race. In a landscape drifted with ash and devoid of colour, a father and his son walk towards the coast, pushing a shopping cart that contains all they have in the world, trying to elude roving bands of cannibals. Another winter inland will kill them, and perhaps they will die anyway. But there is hope in movement.
Hope in movement is an abiding American belief, and one McCarthy has explored at great length, particularly in his Border Trilogy. That hope is often dashed when his heroes encounter trials they could not have imagined before they set out. Some readers have complained that the trilogy’s first volume, All the Pretty Horses (1992), is just a dime Western dressed up in pretty language. It is certainly the most romantic of McCarthy’s novels, a coming-of-age story with a likeable cowboy protagonist, John Grady Cole, who shoots and knifes his way out of trouble in Mexico. Or who, to put it differently, moves classically from innocence to hard-bitten realism, even a kind of cynicism. In Cities of the Plain, the trilogy’s final volume (The Crossing is the second), that cynicism is redeemed by John Grady’s incessant attraction to animals and people that are somehow damaged or vulnerable; nothing else much moves him.